Today I got to take my glider lesson and flight that was my big surprise Christmas present. It was originally scheduled for my birthday, yesterday, but gliding is very weather-sensitive, and a low cloud cover forced Stowe Soaring to reschedule for today. The reschedule didn't work out right, they double-booked, and I had to wait over three hours for my flight. (We spent that time relaxing in Morrisville.)
The flight was preceded by ground training. They'd said it would be an hour, but it was maybe fifteen minutes, and was spent at the glider, and also included the pre-flight checklist which was going to happen anyway. Fortunately I'd already finished reading the book that came with it. The book is very dense, very dry, and very hard to learn much from because there's no chance to make each thing sink in before you're on to something else. It's really intended to be used in parallel with practical training that makes each bit real. However, while I hadn't learned a lot from the book, I did get the ideas into my head, so even the hurried training was enough to get me acclimated to the glider.
The towplane pilot wasn't their usual towplane pilot, but someone who flies DC-10s regularly, and isn't a glider pilot. So the tow up was a little bumpy, and my teacher, John, told me that he was going to handle the tow, and that it's the hardest part. I believe it. I could feel his work on the controls, and there were always three things going on, faster than I could follow. This was the only part that was a little bit scary.
As soon as the tow separation ended and we were on level flight, John told me to point the glider at a particular point and fly it. Just like that. Bam. My first few minutes trying to fly the glider were uneven at best; no matter how many times you read the advice that you work the controls with small movements, just how light the pressure should be is something you can't feel until your hands are on the stick.
It was so late in the day that almost all the lift was gone. We circled in a few thermals (columns of rising air caused by sun heating on the ground, which gliders use to gain altitude and thus prolong the flight) but while the lift had been great earlier in the day (another pilot had been up for four hours on a single tow), even my trainer couldn't get more than a hundred feet out of any thermal, and each flight came to just under a half hour. That I was flying wasn't helping much either.
By the second flight, I had gotten a much better grip on coordinated turns -- that is, working the stick (aelirons) and pedals (rudder) together so that the plane banks without yawing (slewing to the side) -- and pretty much never had the yaw string off center. This was both in straight-and-level flight, and while maintaining a bank of 30° while circling in a thermal However, I never got even close to getting the hang of using the pitch control (tilting forward or back with the elevator) and trim to maintain airspeed of 65 knots. At best, I was managing a pilot-induced oscillation of about 10 knots either way -- I would correct, overshoot, and have to correct back, and overshoot again. That was at best; at worst, I was correcting in the wrong direction, because I didn't have it down to muscle memory how it works, I had to stop and think through, every time, "I need to increase airspeed, and diving increases speed at the cost of altitude, and nose down is diving, and pushing forward is nose down" (or the reverse) instead of just getting "push forward for more speed". (Another minor issue is that I couldn't comfortably pull back since the stick was hitting my stomach, and I couldn't use trim enough to adjust for that because I never had time -- at any given moment I am supposed to watching the sky and horizon, the yaw string, the variometer, the altimeter, and the airspeed indicator, all of which were partially obscured by the pilot in the front seat, while working the stick and rudder pedals).
So I got a total of about 10 minutes of actual flying time. (And that's what my logbook says.) I didn't do anything during either the tow or the landing (not even the approach). All I did was the very simplest stuff, high up in clear air without any other traffic or significant weather. And I didn't even get to the point where I was able to do that. But I was only flying it for ten minutes, so I'm pretty pleased with the fact that in that much time, I got to where I could do banks, fly straight, and aim for a spot and reach it. Another flight and I could probably get to where I could do the pitch in those conditions, and then I could get better at feeling lift on another flight, and so on.
Even so, it's kind of amazing to imagine that anyone can keep all the things in their head they have to in order to fly -- let alone fly and also talk to some annoying guy in the back seat. What's even more amazing is thinking of people doing that in 1928, with planes that barely held together, and hardly anyone to teach you because no one else knew either.
If I had a few extra lifetimes, there are a half-dozen things I would love to spend a lot of time learning, like playing drums. Flying is one of them. Since I don't have an extra lifetime, nor even the basic courtesy of being independently wealthy and eligible for retirement, I probably won't do anything more with this other than playing with Flight Simulator X (which has a glider!). But I can say that, once, I flew a glider.